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U.S. Highway 550 realignment on track for spring 2023 completion, officials say

Project expected to ramp up this summer, but public should not be impacted
Dave Morris, design-build project manager with Lawrence Construction, looks over the U.S. Highway 550 realignment project last week where one of two bridges are under construction. This one will be about 145 feet high when finished.

Now six months in, the Colorado Department of Transportation says work is on schedule for the construction of a new interchange near Grandview in south Durango, which will essentially remove the need for Farmington Hill.

“Things have gone pretty much as planned,” said Dave Morris, the design-build project manager from Lawrence Construction, the contracted construction company. “I think it’s gone seamlessly so far.”

For years, efforts were made to bypass the steep Farmington Hill, which state officials have said since the early 1990s will not withstand the region’s expected growth in population and ensuing traffic.

The project, however, sustained numerous setbacks, from issues over land negotiations, legal battles with property owners resulting in the use of eminent domain and even the discovery of a vast network of Native American ruins.

But finally, CDOT last winter awarded a $98.6 million contract to two Denver-based companies to design and build the realignment of U.S. Highway 550, which would direct southbound traffic to the existing interchange near Grandview.

Lawrence Construction crews build one of two bridges that will be part of the U.S. Highway 550 realignment project southeast of Durango. The bridges will provide protections for wildlife habitat, the Colorado Department of Transportation said.

That work, which was mostly out of view of the public eye and did not affect travel in the area, commenced in August, and as of this week, project officials say the project is on track for a spring 2023 completion.

Most of the work, so far, has been constructing two bridges over gulches to allow the rest of the highway to be built. That part of the project is expected to be completed by early summer, Morris said.

The largest of the bridges, according to CDOT records, is 600 feet long over what’s known as “Gulch A.” The other, smaller bridge over “Gulch B” is just to the west. Both bridges are intended to protect wildlife habitat.

Once the bridges are complete, crews can start large diversion structures, which could take two to three months to construct. The aim is to be done by June, and after that, Morris said it will “kick off a lot of operations.”

“Things will really start to ramp up,” he said.

Though the start of winter offered favorable weather conditions, crews did not get ahead of schedule, Morris said. Then storms started to roll in at the end of January, and construction has since slowed down.

“We didn’t gain a lot, even with the great weather,” he said. “We’ve had a few less days than we would have liked, but we’ve been able to maintain our schedule.”

Since construction started late last summer, crews have been focused on building two bridges for the U.S. Highway 550 realignment. Construction on the bridges should be completed by early summer.

Although construction is expected to ramp up later this summer, project officials say the impact to travelers in the area should remain low.

This spring, CDOT will realign the Highway 550 and County Road 220 connection to push traffic farther away onto a new portion of the highway. Then, crews will put up a temporary bridge over County Road 220 for project traffic.

“Really this year, we should have another full season of limited impact (to travelers), outside of realigning County Road 220,” Morris said.

Once crews get the new northbound lanes of Highway 550 paved by November, then traffic can be moved there, allowing for the paving of the southbound lanes next construction season with limited impact to the public.

“There might be a couple days where we shift traffic,” said Bridget McDougall, CDOT’s assistant project engineer. “But long term, continuous lane closures shouldn’t be something we’ll see.”

Once completed, the new interchange will be considered the largest CDOT construction project ever in Southwest Colorado. Funding over the years has been a cause for delay.

In November 2017, the state of Colorado’s Transportation Commission approved the biggest chunk of funding, $54.4 million. Not long after, through CDOT’s Region 5 project funding, $29.9 million was thrown into the project.

This roughed-out section of the U.S. Highway 550 realignment project shows what the highway will look like as the road approaches the first bridge south of Durango. Efforts to realign Highway 550 have been going on for years to replace what the Colorado Department of Transportation says is a dangerous stretch at Farmington Hill.

Local agencies then contributed – the Southern Ute Indian Tribe pledged $500,000, and the city of Durango and La Plata County each pledged $250,000. A FASTLANE federal grant added $12.3 million for the project. And the Colorado Department of Local Affairs awarded a $1 million grant.

And that’s not to mention the $47 million spent on the Grandview interchange, a network of four bridges, six retaining walls, on- and off-ramps and a roundabout that were built in 2011 with the intention of connecting to Highway 550 from the south.

Now on the ground, CDOT has been working with residents in the area, keeping them up to date on the latest construction plans and where delays may occur.

“It’s been a good example of community coming together,” said David Valentinelli, CDOT’s project director.

jromeo@durangoherald.com

Oct 15, 2021
CDOT to break ground on $98.6 million U.S. Highway 550 realignment
Oct 15, 2021
‘Biggest project’ about to break ground in Southwest Colorado
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